This was before violence was really violence. "The Violent World of Sam Huff" was a television documentary that brought into our living rooms the sounds of a linebacker at work. The year, 1960. The narrator, Walter Cronkite. This was before real violence, before someone shot Kennedy, before someone shot the kids at Kent State. This football violence was hyperbole.
It came to fit the time. And in time it was no longer hyperbole. As the National Football League danced in step to this country's mad song of the 1960's, pro football nurtured meanness. Dick Butkus said he dreamed of the perfect tackle: upon impact, a ball carrier's head would roll away from his body. Every night at 11, we watched Vietnam. Every Sunday, we watched Butkus.
Heyerdahl sailed in a boat of reeds across the Pacific and said men transported cultures in such boats thousands of years ago. Explorers of the NFL psyche, searching to explain the evolution of a Butkus or a Jack Tatum, inevitably see the Huff/Cronkite documentary as the definitive statement on pro football. A violent world of animalistic snarls and raving angers. We once thought it was a game. It wasn't.
Sam Huff, you scared us to death.
And now they've put you in the Hall of Fame.
Eleven years after retiring from the Redskins, Sam Huff was elected to the NFL's Hall of Fame last Saturday. In eight seasons with the New York Giants, Huff was all-pro twice, defensive player of the year once, the middle linebacker on a defense so good it took the Giants to six NFL championship games. His picture ran on the cover of Time. His meetings with Jim Brown became a mano a mano memorable even today. He played his last four seasons for the Redskins, retiring after Vince Lombardi's single year as coach.
"He ranks with Mel Hein (a 1930s Hall of Famer) as the greatest lineman I've ever seen," said Huff's first Giant coach, Jim Lee Howell. Back then, the Giants considered the middle linebacker a lineman.
Also elected to the Hall of Fame: George Musso, a tackle for the Chicago Bears in the '30s (who played against two future presidents, a center named Ford and a guard named Reagan); Doug Atkins, a defensive end with the Bears in the '50s, and Merlin Olsen, a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams who retired five years ago. Official announcement will be made Sunday at the Pro Bowl.
"They asked me if I could come to Hawaii for it," Huff said, "and I told them I'd be there even if I have to swim all the way."
If anything, the television program delayed Huff's election. Some of the 28 sportswriters who vote may have believed the film left a stigma of violence on the game. Some may have thought the extraordinarily graphic film--never had we seen this war up close and personal--raised Huff's fame to heights disproportionate to his ability. Whatever, Huff waited six years beyond the requisite five before he heard the glad news Saturday.
"I cried like a baby," he said. "When you realize how few people are in that Hall of Fame, it's an indescribable feeling."
Working for WMAL radio this past Super Bowl week in Detroit, Huff knew the writers were voting Saturday morning. He stayed in his hotel room. He was in no hurry to find out. "I'd been hurt before when I didn't make it," he said.
Sonny Jurgensen made it to the final 10 this time, his first appearance that late. As Huff came down from his room Saturday afternoon, he bumped into a Hall of Fame official, who said, "You made it."
Huff had begun to doubt he'd ever hear those words.
Now 47, a vice president in marketing for the Marriott Corp. and a commentator on Redskin radio broadcasts, Huff said, "You know you've made accomplishments and yet here's other ballplayers that you're compared to--like Joe Schmidt of Detroit, he went right in the Hall of Fame. Bill George of Chicago went right in. Ray Nitschke, right in. Dick Butkus, right in. You start doubting yourself. You say, 'What the hell, why not me?' "
Back when the word violence didn't conjure napalm and assassins, before Jack Tatum was proud he left receivers unconscious, the so-called violent world of Sam Huff did little injury to sensibilities. So football is a hard game. We knew that. We knew Sam Huff clotheslined receivers and dropped late hits on runners already tackled. It was legal and expected.
Now it is illegal. Sam Huff's game was angry. In time football turned ugly. Today a show called "The Violent World of Jack Tatum" would be an indictment, not an entertainment. The NFL has moved to eliminate the gratuitous cheap shot, the needless pillaging of quarterbacks. Vietnam is over, pastoral baseball is back with its gentle rhythms and pro football has eliminated the clothesline.
Not long ago, Huff spoke nostalgically of the days when he ruled the middle. "It used to be I never let a back pass in front of me without clotheslining him. Hell, I just stuck out my arm and it was like the guy ran into a pole." Huff reluctantly said the new rules of protection for the defenseless are all right. "Well, now that I'm out of it, I'd say yes."
At 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, Huff could move from sideline to sideline. Tom Landry changed him from tackle to linebacker his first camp with the Giants. "It was like I was born to play the position," Huff said. Behind linemen Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski, Roosevelt Grier and Andy Robustelli, Huff was free to pursue any who dared run the ball.
Jim Brown dared. "A thing I'm proud of," Huff said, "is I saw Jim on television one day when somebody asked him if ever was afraid of any football player. He said, 'Yeah, Sam Huff.' I don't think he feared me physically, but he feared me the same way I feared him. I was afraid he'd rip off a couple hundred yards and three touchdowns. That was a fear I lived with. I think he feared me in that he wasn't going to do that. Fear and respect."
Jim Brown, the greatest runner ever.
"In the Hall," Huff said, "I hope they put my bust beside Jim Brown's."